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Being and Non-being

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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 by Harold Stewart

 The ancient Chinese term for the Unknowable Ultimate was the Nameless Tao, also called Wu (No Thing - but not nothing) or Wu Wu (Non-Being: the exact equivalent of the Upanishadic reference to Brahman as neti neti: 'not that, not that'). It was called 'Tao without a Name' to distinguish it from 'Tao with a Name', namely Being as the Principle of Existence, the Origin of the 'ten thousand things'. The dependence of Being on Non-Being, the One on the Nought, can be best illustrated by an aphorism of Lao-tsu from the Tao Te Ching, in which the founder of Taoism points out that domestic vessels are useful solely because of their hollowness, and that houses can be inhabited only because their rooms are filled with empty space and their windows and doorways define voids. Such images clearly exemplify the nature and function of Taoist Non-Being.

Much confusion in Western minds might have been avoided if Non-Being could have been translated by Supra-Being, because far from contradicting or denying either Being or Becoming, it subsumes and transcends both as their Principle. As the Infinite or Unlimited (Wu Chi), it comprises all possibilities, both unmanifest and manifestable, while its possibilities of manifestation comprise those in formless as well as in formal modes, the last mentioned including spiritual, psychic, and material forms. There is still another meaning that metaphysicians sometimes give to the term non-being, in which it refers to the negative residue of unmanifestable possibilities that remain after the positive possibilities have been manifested and so, as it were, withdrawn from Being. But Taoist Non-Being is not used in this exclusively privative sense.

Such is its plenitude that Shunyata encompasses the possibilities of all things, not only those now being made manifest, but those that have already been and those that are yet to be. For according to the Metaphysica Perennis, nothing that has ever been can be irrevocably annihilated or lost. Every quality is preserved in the eternal Here and Now, which transcends space and time.

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, was unique among the founders of the world's religions in steadfastly refusing to posit either being or Being, an individual self or the Universal Self. Anatma, or non-self, is the very foundation of his original teaching, which is the only doctrine among the many branches of Tradition that proceeds directly from Becoming to Non-Being, without the mediation of any changeless ontological principle or deity. Shunyata and Samsara, the Void and Becoming, are regarded as a nonduality, which is quite different in conception, not merely in terminology, from either monism or monotheism.


Buddhist doctrine, then, does not subscribe either to the theological 'I Am That I Am' or to the ontological law of identity; 'Whatever is, Is'. Instead, it teaches that whatever becomes, is not. In other words, Becoming is the dynamic realization of the infinite possibilities of Non-Being, Shunyata, or the Void. Since it does not envisage any changeless ontological Principle or Supreme Being between the instantaneous manifestations of transience and the Unmanifest, the Buddhist doctrine can be described as both nondualist and nontheistic (though not atheistic).

The Buddha stated his doctrine in this form not because he denied Being, for as the 'One and Only Transmigrant' he was himself an incarnation of the Dharmakaya, or Body of the Buddhist Law. As so often in the Buddha's teachings, his purpose here was methodological, an upaya to prevent his followers from substituting the abstract rational concept of Being or being for the actual Realization of Buddhahood. As the 'God Beyond God', to give him one of his traditional titles, the Buddha was concerned lest aspirants stop short at the penultimate Nirvana and so fail to reach anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, or ultimate Parinirvana. But later, when the Mahayana came to affirm the positive qualities of Nirvana, it described them as Pure Being, Pure Consciousness and Pure Bliss; exactly the same attributes as the Sat, Cit, and Ananda of the Hindu Brahman.

If each and every being and thing be assigned to its due place in the total Reality, it will be seen to be fully real on its own level, but relatively illusory, or rather of a lesser reality, from the viewpoint of any higher plane; for each level subsumes those below. This involves no infinite regress, since at the summit of the whole hierarchical structure sits the Buddha, in whose universal contemplation all cosmic antagonisms are reconciled and all contradictions disappear. For ultimately to his Divine Ear, no discord can remain unresolved.